Thank you for the opportunity to brief you about my last mission as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar to Thailand and Bangladesh. I thank the Governments of Bangladesh and Thailand for facilitating this mission, and the UN Resident Coordinators of Thailand and Bangladesh who have always been extremely helpful and supportive of my missions.
This occasion has given me pause to reflect on my time in this region over the last six years. When I took up my mandate in 2014, it was a time of great optimism for Myanmar’s burgeoning democratic transition, promising reforms and encouraging progress.
My first mission to Myanmar was in July 2014, I visited Yangon, Nay Pyi Taw, Rakhine, Kachin and Mandalay and met with authorities, civil society, victims, religious and ethnic community leaders, the UN and international community. Over the next three years, I travelled widely around the country, including to different parts of Kachin, Shan, Rakhine, Kayin and Mon, and continued to meet with a diverse range of stakeholders and engage with the Government about how it could improve the human rights situation.
In January 2017, I visited northern Rakhine. I saw the sites of the alleged attacks by ARSA in October 2016 and met with villagers following the security operations that involved mass human rights violations against the Rohingya population. Following that, I had my first visit to Bangladesh in February 2017. I met with some of the 80,000 Rohingya who had been forced out during the security operations following 9 October 2016 and were living in makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar together with Rohingya refugees who had been there for up to 25 years. It was then that I was informed of the worst atrocities committed by human beings against their fellow people having taken place, including killings, torture, dismembering of body parts, slitting of throats and breasts, children being thrown into fires and gang rapes.
It was after my mission in July 2017 when I visited Yangon, Nay Pyi Taw, Sittwe, Kyaukphyu, Buthidaung and Maungdaw in Rakhine, Hpa-an in Kayin State and Lashio in Shan, that the parliament resolved to reject my end of mission statement for being biased. In December 2017, after having requested a visit to the country in January 2018, my request was denied. The Government went on to request the Human Rights Council President to replace me as Special Rapporteur. My access has not been granted since.
That has led me to visit Bangladesh four more times: in January and July 2018, January 2019 and now. I have also visited Thailand several times, and Malaysia in July 2019. People from Myanmar who suffered human rights violations and abuses are present in all those countries.
I am very thankful to the Government of Bangladesh for allowing me to visit numerous times and to hold my press conference here again, yet I am disappointed that Myanmar did not reverse its decision not to allow me access for the last time. As a Special Rapporteur, I must speak the truth. From the outset of my mandate, I told them I was committed to “call a spade a spade.” Obviously, for the Government of Myanmar, the truth I was speaking was not to their liking.
After six years of visiting the region and monitoring the situation in Myanmar, what I have seen has quashed the optimism I initially felt. How could I be optimistic with ongoing credible allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide having been committed in Myanmar, and with justice and accountability still not yet within reach? However I still hold out hope that the promised democratic transition will proceed, as it is not too late for the Government to change the course it is currently set to.
During my mission this time, I had the opportunity to interact with and receive information from victims, Myanmar civil society, experts, non-government organisations, the international community, the United Nations in Myanmar, Thailand and Bangladesh, refugees in Bangladesh, and authorities in Bangladesh.
While in the refugee camps, I met with male survivors of sexual violence. They told me of the rape and gang rape that they endured at the hands of the Myanmar military and security forces in Rakhine. This horrific testimony echoes others that I have received from people in other ethnic states during my mandate, in addition to the first-hand reports of rape I have received from numerous Rohingya women in Rakhine and in the Cox’s Bazar camps over the course of my visits there.
I also met with a group of Rohingya Christians who are in a most difficult position. They told me they were persecuted due to their religion by the Myanmar Government while they lived in Rakhine, and now they face hostility and violence from a small number of other camp residents. This worries me.
It struck me that the situation for refugees in the Cox’s Bazar camps, though stable, is stagnating now that the humanitarian response to the crisis of 2017 is in its third year. I am heartened to have heard government officials speak of longer term planning, and I conveyed to them to do what they can to bring about education, skills training, and livelihoods which the refugees yearn for. Refugees expressed to me their sincere gratitude to the Government and people of Bangladesh for giving them shelter and safety from violence and persecution in Myanmar. But they also told me of their anguish over their children’s future, should they continue to receive no formal education – as one father said to me, “Don’t do anything for us now, just help our children.” I understand that authorities are considering piloting the Myanmar curriculum and introducing advanced primary education. I hope that they make positive decisions as these initiatives will assist the refugees’ eventual return home to Myanmar, and support a future for their children.
Above all, the refugees I spoke with told me of their deep desire to return home. However, I was informed by them and other stakeholders about ongoing violence, continuing restrictions on movement, forced imposition of NVCs, and people being killed and injured by landmines in northern Rakhine. This, in addition to the ongoing armed conflict in Rakhine between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw, demonstrates to me that conditions remain unsuitable for their return.
To the Rohingya I have come to know over the years that I have been visiting you here, you are my inspiration. In the face of such adversity you have come together with a peaceful and clear message: you want to go home, with your basic human rights. You must not give up hope.
I was informed by multiple interlocutors about the devastating impact of the intensifying conflict between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw, which has become entrenched over the last year. The restrictions imposed by the Government, including the internet shutdown in four townships and the blockage of aid in eight townships, recently with the addition of Myebon, severely exacerbate that impact. I was informed that without government permission, community based organisations are not even allowed to provide food to displaced people, of which there are now reportedly over 100,000 living in camps and sheltering in villages in Rakhine. There are also 1,800 people displaced in southern Chin. I am also very worried about both sides engaging in disturbing tactics including abductions, targeting family members, and mass arrests, and how this is instilling fear in the civilian population. I welcome the release of the Chin State MP U Hwei Tin by the AA. Both sides must ensure their systematic compliance with international humanitarian law, in particular the principle of distinction, and international human rights law.
The situation in northern Shan State remains volatile, with armed conflict ongoing, village leaders reportedly being targeted by the military and ethnic armed organisations, and civilian fatalities reportedly caused by gunfire and landmines. In Kachin State too, though the conflict has slowed, landmines continue to injure and kill civilians, causing the effects of past conflict to reach into the present and future. I was told that the residents of Nam Sang Yang village in Waingmaw Township, who recently returned from IDP camps under the supervision of the Tatmadaw, are unable to cultivate their land due to landmine contamination, leaving them no access to food and livelihood.
In this context, and with ongoing armed conflict in western and northern Myanmar, I am still concerned that it may be premature for the Government to be implementing its National Camp Closure Strategy. Full and transparent consultations are critical to understand and realize the wishes of IDPs that the Government wishes to relocate.
I discussed the upcoming elections with several interlocutors who expressed apprehension about what may occur. It is incumbent on the Government to ensure that they are peaceful, credible, free and fair, that all people in the country are able to equally participate, and that political debate is open and welcome. It is critical that debate is not repressed by nationalist vitriol or draconian laws that infringe on the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association. Some interlocutors expressed worry that polling may not be allowed in certain areas for security reasons; this was expressed in particular in relation to Rakhine and Shan. If that occurs, distrust towards the next government and community grievances and marginalization that already exist are only going to grow stronger, and this will further hamper efforts to move forward in the democratic transition and peace process.
Last week it was announced that the new members of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission had been selected. When I spoke at the Human Rights Council in September last year, I called for amendments to be made to the Commission’s enabling law, for the Commissioner selection process to be transparent and inclusive, and for the new Commissioners to be selected to reflect the pluralism of Myanmar society. I am disappointed to say that despite my hopes and those of civil society, none of these steps were taken. Instead, new Commissioners were appointed last week, and several of them had military backgrounds. This is highly disappointing. I repeat my call for the Government to reform the Commission so that it accords with the Paris Principles to enable it to credibly and independently promote and protect the human rights of all individuals in all circumstances.
During my mission, I spoke to people about the situation in garment factories. Workers have been taking industrial action after being paid less than minimum wage or being refused leave. Some have even reported suffering abuse and sexual harassment by their employers. One woman I spoke to who took part in a protest has been unjustly charged under the problematic Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which I have called on to be amended many times. She has to travel 180 kilometres every fortnight to attend court, at great personal expense. I was informed that in other cases the local authorities have attempted to pressure workers into signing statements that claim they will not protest again. Such infringements on rights will not support the development of a strong sector that benefits the people of Myanmar. More must be done by the Government, the Myanmar Employers Association and Unions to empower workers and improve conditions. The Government has a duty to protect the right to freedom of association, and should be encouraging social dialogue to prevent disputes. This is all the more important as I have been informed that there are plans to build many more garment factories to feed the global demand for fast fashion. I remind global fashion brands and buyers that they have a responsibility to ensure they are respecting human rights throughout their supply chains, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
I recall that it is nearly the three-year anniversary of the assassination of U Ko Ni. While the trial of the man who was accused of shooting him and those who were accused of conspiring to kill him has finished and they were convicted, the alleged ringleader remains at large. It is also five years since the brutal rape and killing of two volunteer teachers in Kachin. I am informed that the police have lost the evidence from their case such that investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators is highly unlikely. Justice remains elusive for all three victims as the Myanmar justice system remains ineffective, incapable and unwilling to prosecute perpetrators of human rights violations.
Throughout my mandate, I have made strong calls for accountability that led to the establishment of the Fact-Finding Mission and the Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar, as well as contributing to other international efforts. Today is an historic day in the quest for justice for Myanmar, with the International Court of Justice handing down its decision on The Gambia’s request for provisional measures to be ordered against Myanmar in relation to their alleged violation of the Genocide Convention. Regardless of the decision that is announced today, it must be recognized that significant steps have been taken towards justice and accountability in the last three years, but more needs to be done in order to realise it for all the people of Myanmar.
In this context, I note that on Monday, just three days before the ICJ’s decision will be made, and almost 18 months since its establishment, the Myanmar Government’s Independent Commission of Enquiry announced that it had transmitted its final report to the President. I have expressed some concerns about the ICOE on earlier occasions, and I make no comment on the findings set out in the Executive Summary published by the President’s Office. Like many of you, I would very much like the opportunity to read the ICOE’s report in its entirety, and I call for it to be made public as soon as possible.
I urge the international community to keep the credible evidence of ongoing crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide front of mind in its relations with Myanmar. In the face of this, one cannot proceed as if nothing has happened, and continues to happen. Carrying on with business as usual will only allow the deplorable situation to persist.
The Myanmar Government must face up to its responsibilities, obligations and duties. I have no doubt that Myanmar has the ways and means to change its course from slipping back to the dark pre-transition days, and to move forward in the direction of an inclusive, free, democratic and rights-respecting nation.